Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq

Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq

by Steve Call


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"America had a secret weapon," writes Steve Call of the period immediately following September 11, 2001, as planners contemplated the invasion of Afghanistan. This weapon consisted of small teams of Special Forces operatives trained in close air support (CAS) who, in cooperation with the loose federation of Afghan rebels opposed to the Taliban regime, soon began achieving impressive-and unexpected-military victories over Taliban forces and the al-Qaeda terrorists they had sponsored. The astounding success of CAS tactics coupled with ground operations in Afghanistan soon drew the attention of military decision makers and would eventually factor into the planning for another campaign: Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But who, exactly, are these air power experts and what is the function of the TACPs (Tactical Air Control Parties) in which they operate? Danger Close provides a fascinating look at a dedicated, courageous, innovative, and often misunderstood and misused group of military professionals.

Drawing on the gripping first-hand accounts of their battlefield experiences, Steve Call allows the TACPs to speak for themselves. He accompanies their narratives with informed analysis of the development of CAS strategy, including potentially controversial aspects of the interservice rivalries between the air force and the army which have at times complicated and even obstructed the optimal employment of TACP assets. Danger Close makes clear, however, that the systematic coordination of air power and ground forces played an invaluable supporting role in the initial military victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This first-ever examination of the intense, life-and-death world of the close air support specialist will introduce readers to a crucial but little-known aspect of contemporary warfare and add a needed chapter in American military history studies.

STEVE CALL is an assistant professor at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York, teaching both American and military history. During his twenty-year career in the air force, Call held many command and staff positions, including liaison officer with the army, Pentagon staff officer, and squadron commander. His PhD in military history is from Ohio State University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603441421
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 01/15/2010
Series: Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series , #113
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 1,216,090
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

STEVE CALL is an assistant professor at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York, teaching both American and military history. During his twenty-year career in the air force, Call held many command and staff positions, including liaison officer with the army, Pentagon staff officer, and squadron commander. His PhD in military history is from Ohio State University.

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Danger Close

Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq

By Steve Call

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2007 Steve Call
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58544-624-7


The Challenge Is Clear—and Daunting

The dust of the World Trade Towers had hardly settled before it became clear—Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda, were responsible. One other fact followed in the wake of this reality—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, by harboring bin Laden and supporting al Qaeda training camps, was complicit in this heinous crime. When the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden and dismantle the camps, a war to deal with both the Taliban and al Qaeda became certain. What was far less certain was how such a war could accomplish anything effective yet acceptable to world and U.S. public opinion. Decision-makers and opinion shapers were debating the options publicly and passionately. Some advocated a massive bombing campaign—"Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age!"—but few thought this would serve any purpose other than naked vengeance. With little real infrastructure and a regime that rejected modernity and wanted in many respects to see Afghan society stripped of its Western trappings, there was little bombing could do to cause the Taliban real pain.

More troubling, some advocated a major ground invasion. Sending a massive U.S. ground force to bring down the Taliban, root out al Qaeda, and hunt for bin Laden seemed the only sure way to end that threat, and according to a CBS/New York Times poll, 55 percent of those asked said they would accept thousands of American deaths in a military campaign against Afghanistan (N.Y. Times, 25 September 2001, A1). Surely this level of support opened the door for a major ground offensive. But the Bush administration seemed less sanguine, probably because the history of foreign armies in the region was ominous. Afghanistan, with its rugged terrain and long history of tribal and clannish independence, was infamous as the graveyard of European armies. Alexander the Great conquered it, but his generals did not hold it long after his death. Britain and Russia both tried to absorb it into their respective empires in the nineteenth century, battling each other in what became known as "the Great Game," but the recalcitrant Afghanis thwarted both their efforts. Upper-most in people's memories, however, was how the Soviets had met their "Vietnam" in Afghanistan, and in the view of some, this national disaster was what really started the Soviet slide into collapse. Few advocates won any real support for this option.

Adding to concerns about taking on the Taliban and al Qaeda in a conventional ground war was the fact that for years a loose coalition of Afghanis known as the Northern Alliance, as well as other groups, had waged a tenacious but seemingly futile rebellion. If these Afghanis couldn't beat the Taliban on their own turf, what chance did Americans have in this mountainous landlocked country half a world away? While this added to the pessimism of dealing decisively with the Taliban, it did offer a glimmer of hope: why not link up with the Taliban's enemies, help them bring down the regime, and then be in a better position to deal with a new, hopefully more cooperative, Afghani government?

On 7 October, the U.S. military began launching air attacks against Afghanistan targets. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration did not announce its strategy at the outset, so speculation on this point was rife in the media. Airstrikes appeared calculated to degrade the collective military capabilities of the Taliban regime and their al Qaeda allies, but by all accounts it looked like a classic strategic bombing campaign. Fighters, bombers, and cruise missiles from the United States and its coalition partners struck key buildings, airfields, radar installations, and other fixed targets generally considered part of a nation's infrastructure and vital to its defenses. The terrorist training camps were being bombed as well, which had obvious utility to the War on Terror, but many asked how an impoverished nation that had seen decades of uninterrupted warfare and that was notoriously bereft of infrastructure could be seriously weakened by these air attacks. Many speculated the attacks were meant to aid the Northern Alliance somehow, though Northern Alliance leaders were unimpressed and unsure how their cause was being advanced. Officials remained tight-lipped about the overall strategy, though some pointed out that any modern U.S. military operation would begin with just such an "air phase" to ensure air superiority, disrupt enemy air defenses, and degrade enemy political and military command and control facilities, all of which would aid whatever happened in "phase two."

After several weeks, however, it looked to outside observers like the air campaign was the strategy. Reports had surfaced of Special Forces teams moving into theater, but no major combat unit movements seemed to be under way that might indicate an imminent "ground phase" to follow up and exploit the "air phase." Moreover, it didn't seem like the air campaign was meant to directly help the Northern Alliance, since its officials were still complaining that few airstrikes were aimed at Taliban troop positions. This charge seemed plausible since a Northern Alliance offensive on Mazar-e Sharif had been halted and the widely touted drive on Kabul postponed. If the air campaign wasn't paving the way for either an imminent U.S. invasion or a Northern Alliance ground offensive, what was it trying to achieve?

Since most targets thus far had been of the type struck in what air doctrine calls a strategic attack campaign, many observers assumed Bush and Rumsfeld were trying to win the war with air power alone. This assumption awakened the old strategic bombing debate and brought back images of Bill Clinton's handling of the Kosovo campaign. Critics ranging from politicians like John McCain to academics like air power theorist Robert A. Pape and media pundits like Charles Krauthammer lined up to denounce any strategy based on "paralysis through bombing" and to call for conventional invasion as the only way to victory. The chorus of criticism only grew louder with a string of high-visibility mistakes as U.S. planes bombed the wrong targets. Inexplicably, Americans targeted a Red Cross relief warehouse, not once, but twice. "Collateral damage" and large numbers of civilian casualties were being widely reported, and not just by the Taliban. By late October America's war on terror in Afghanistan appeared, publicly anyway, to be like a ship without a rudder, and the critics were becoming more insistent.

But events in Afghanistan were poised for a dramatic turnaround. In the weeks between late October and early November a significant number of new Special Forces teams infiltrated into Afghanistan and linked up with various Northern Alliance elements, as well as U.S. and Coalition units already in theater. One key component of these new teams was air force ROMADs known as SOF TACPs. These individuals were part of a program that had started in 1994 to select highly experienced ROMADs who were then given Special Forces training and sent to work with SF units around the world. Though they were regular air force, they were Special Forces in everything but name. Originally the SOF TACP program had been intended to train SOF forces in how to conduct "emergency CAS," but the mission expanded and they gained a permanent position on many SOF teams as something like "super TACPs." The job of these SOF TACPs in Afghanistan was to linkup with friendly forces, get as close to enemy positions as possible, and then call in airstrikes.

Bringing in CAS experts brought several immediate advantages. First, by getting in close enough to see what was being hit and having the training to ensure the greatest possible accuracy in aiming, these controllers could greatly reduce the problem of errant bombs. Second, one of the reasons airstrikes on enemy positions in front of Northern Alliance forces had been so few was that without some form of control on the ground to guide the airstrikes, the possibility of bombs falling on Northern Alliance forces was significant and would have had a disastrous impact on the tenuous relationship U.S. leaders were trying to build with the notoriously fickle rebel leaders. Third, these new teams could begin probing for enemy units in other areas of suspected strength.

These second and third advantages offered obvious utility, but there was a less obvious benefit—a new capability had been taking shape for several years that few had fully appreciated. The stunning success that followed not only demonstrated the new capability in dramatic fashion but also took a lot of military experts by surprise.

The Fall of Mazar-e Sharif

The first major city to fall to the rebels was Mazar-e Sharif, and the collapse of Taliban forces holding the city was so sudden and so surprising that on the same day that newspapers reported the city's fall, they published articles criticizing theater commander Gen. Tommy Franks's overall strategy. One of the catalysts for this success was S.Sgt. Stephen Tomat. A SOF TACP stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Tomat is with the 22nd Air Support Operations Flight, which supports 5th Special Forces Group. In early November, Tomat's SOF team linked up with one of the Northern Alliance's strongest, and most notorious leaders, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum's forces were south of Mazar-e Sharif and had been trying to move northward to take the city since before the September eleventh attacks. SOF and other U.S. government agencies had linked up with Northern Alliance units prior to Tomat's arrival, and they had been calling in airstrikes on suspected enemy positions, but as Tomat says, "these teams were of the mind-set ... that they [could control CAS] from twelve kilometers away or more." The problem with this approach is twofold. In Tomat's words: "One, it's not effective—you obviously can't get 'eyes on' the target ... and two, you're more than likely incurring a great deal of collateral damage, not to mention civilian deaths." Tomat made critical changes right away, and those changes made quite a difference.

After about a week of bombing, the command staff ... determined that it was vital that they get a TAC-qualified individual on the ground. I was then told to get my stuff ready; had about three hours to get on the bird ... and then we finally [made it] into our link up point [and] infilled down into Dahee.... The main mission of the team was to secure the two northernmost airfields in northern Afghanistan for resupply and for reinforcements for future operations. [One airfield is] located just south of Mazar-e Sharif and there's another one off to the east. The second mission was to open up the land bridge ... into Uzbekistan to provide a land route for reinforcements....

You can see just how the people lived out in that area. We were lucky to have some place to sleep. Later on we moved up into the mountain regions and found a number of caves and areas to sleep in [and] to conduct CAS from a little bit later on. Once we in filled, it took about a day for General Dostum to come down to our area. It was there that I assessed the situation; the team captain informed me of what was going on. [Dostum's people] were thinking to call CAS onto these towns from [twelve kilometers away].... It was at that point I told ... General Dostum that we need to get eyes onto the targets to be effective. I would prefer [to be] within a kilometer of the enemy positions, so I could determine what I was striking. My main focus was to strike the [command and control] nodes initially, where I know the command elements were going to be located. I know that once the command structure falls, the grunts aren't going to have the leadership to carry out orders....

We then moved from just south of Dahee ... up the riverbed in order to avoid mines to an area south of Chopchau. The Taliban had taken all the mines from the Russian war and placed [them] in what they thought were avenues of approach. Just to the south was a village that had been razed, destroyed, literally leveled by the Taliban. There's nothing left of it. [From] that point, we were going to conduct our operations to push the bad guys out of this area so we could move north up into Mazar-e Sharif....

Now keep in mind, we moved this distance by horseback and foot. There's one point where we walked because our horses were just dead dog tired, I mean literally. These are not horses like Western horses, they are like large dogs. And the saddles we're sitting on were literally two-by-fours covered with a piece of carpet. And because the Afghans were not very big guys their stirrups were extremely short. So we were sitting on [these horses], our asses were sore, our knees were literally up to our chests. But that was pretty taxing on the body and on the horses, so there was a good sixty to a hundred kilometers we actually walked on foot to give the horses a rest. Eventually we got some four-wheelers brought in to us just south of Mazar-e Sharif....

The Taliban and al Qaeda had blocking positions to prevent us from moving north. For years the [rebels] had been fighting the Taliban; the Taliban had just virtually overwhelmed them and set up bunker systems and taken over towns and villages. This whole area, because it's a river system, is heavily populated, relatively speaking.

Once I got into the area of Omulton ... it took me about three days to recon the area and find the command and control bunker system. They had ZSU 57-2 [like many antiaircraft systems, it can be used in a horizontal mode as a direct fire weapon], a tank, and a bunker system, and these bunkers, which are almost in a line, is where the command and control center was. We found out that night that Mullah Fazil and Mullah Rezat were at this position. Mullah Rezat was deputy minister of defense. He was the number eleven guy that we were to capture or take out. Mullah Fazil was the army chief of staff—the number four guy that we needed to either apprehend or take out.

Because they operate deep in enemy territory, SOF teams depend on stealth and face the constant threat of discovery. With their small numbers, this could be disastrous, and quite often air power is the only heavy firepower available. About the time Tomat completed his reconnaissance, part of his team was compromised and the enemy launched an attack.

Mullah Fazil pushed northeast with his convoy in order to flank [their position].... I called in an F/A-18 [for] a gun run ... but he'd have to "break the deck" [descend below the minimum altitude restriction]. So I asked him to get permission from our command sources. He did so; he broke the deck; and I talked him in onto the target. No sooner had he struck the target, we heard over the radio ... that Mullah Fazil was on the run. We could watch them—they looked like ants—they just scattered. That initially broke that contact with the enemy. Then a B-52 was called in on the remainder of the targets. He dropped like twelve Mk-82s onto bad-guy positions and our guys pulled back at that point.

Next Tomat turned his attention to the command and control complex. For this he called on a new weapon in the CAS arsenal, the JDAM, a conventional bomb fitted with a GPS guidance system. It was designed in the wake of Desert Storm for use against fixed targets in a strategic attack role. Here we encounter a theme running throughout this narrative—the ingenuity TACPs showed in finding creative ways to deal with unanticipated and often unimaginable situations. Such ingenuity has long been a hallmark of the American soldier, from Bunker Hill to Normandy, so seeing it alive and well in modern-day airmen shouldn't be surprising, but it is inspiring, and on several occasions it was lifesaving. In this case, JDAMs were pressed on short notice into the CAS fight—a role for which they were never intended. One reflection that this was unanticipated is that there were no established tactics, techniques, or procedures for their use in the CAS role, but TACPs adjusted on the fly, not just in adapting current procedures but, most importantly, by incorporating the weapon's unique capabilities into their way of thinking and doing business. The uniqueness of the situation was not lost on Tomat, but he also realized that innovation on the fly was a two-edged sword. As he explains, to leap into the battlefield of the future you need to have a solid grounding in the basics, and you must have the conviction to stick to the rules no matter what. Tomat's conviction would be put to the test when he got into the middle of Mazar-e Sharif itself.

I then went [after] the command bunkers ... with a B-52 with six JDAMs.... The fact that I'm utilizing a Vietnam-era airframe in [an unconventional warfare] scenario with a twenty-first-century weapon was absolutely awe inspiring. I had goose bumps. When I called in that strike, every single one hit direct on. No problems whatsoever. I know the media said, "Well, they're not accurate"; bullshit. If you utilize the tools you have in hand ... they will strike your target where you want them to.... I knew prior to coming into [this] country what I could do with the JDAMs.... I went back to old school utilizing the map and the compass and stuff like that—you can't go wrong with that....

[Striking that bunker system killed] Mullah Rezat, the secretary of defense, and 150 of his men.... As soon as I struck it General Dostum's forces on horseback took that area over.... We captured the aide to Mullah Rezat, brought him back to our OP.... He was slightly wounded in the arm, very flush and visibly nervous. It was then that General Dostum told him to get on the radio and tell his troops, the Taliban, that the Americans are here, to give up, and to go home. Not more than an hour or two hours after, we took the town of Boybache as a consequence of destroying these bunker systems. We moved into Keshendeb-ye and we continued to the west and then up to the mountain of Homoltek.... As a consequence of destroying the command structure here, these villages fell without another CAS strike or another U.S. forces action on [them] against the Taliban or al Qaeda.... Within literally seven days we were up just south of Mazar-e Sharif. [Task Force Dagger] couldn't believe it.


Excerpted from Danger Close by Steve Call. Copyright © 2007 Steve Call. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Air Force Ranks and Abbreviations,
Part 1—Afghanistan,
1. The Challenge Is Clear—and Daunting,
2. Integrating the Special Forces—Close Air Support Team,
3. The Fall of the Taliban Regime,
4. Operation Anaconda,
5. Just Another Day in Afghanistan,
Part 2—Iraq,
6. A Controversial Invasion in a Context of Controversy,
7. "Our Business Now Is North",
8. A Tale of Two Bridges,
9. Through the Gap, across the Bridge, and on to Baghdad,
10. The Thunder Runs,
11. The Scud Hunt and Operations in Western Iraq,
12. The Drive from the North,
Appendix: People Interviewed,

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